Schoolgirl Gabrielle Price died last week after taking mephedrone, a freely available ‘legal high’ that dealers sell with impunity. Ben Leach reports
"It’s big business,” says Sunny, a 35-year-old ex-con who runs one of the many websites that trade in mephedrone, a party drug and so called “legal high” that the Government is under pressure to ban.
“I run the website with two other people and we make around £25,000 a week. We get dozens of orders every day from people all over the country. We never dreamt that we could make so much money from it.”
Sunny is one of many unscrupulous individuals who are profiting from the huge surge in the popularity of mephedrone, a white powder more commonly known as “meow meow”.
The drug is cheap and gives a high similar to that of Ecstasy and amphetamines. It can be bought by anyone with access to the internet and a credit card.
Last week it sparked a wave of controversy after being linked to the death of schoolgirl Gabrielle Price. The 14-year-old suffered a cardiac arrest and died in hospital after taking a suspected cocktail of drugs including mephedrone.
Miss Price’s death is not the first harrowing account of the devastating effect the drug can have. Earlier this year, Durham Police warned about the dangers of mephedrone after one user ripped off his own scrotum while suffering hallucinations in which he believed centipedes were crawling over his body and biting him.
Indeed, the drug is the most popular of a new batch of legal highs that are engineered in Chinese laboratories before being shipped to Britain. Most have a range of side-effects that include convulsions, breathing problems, nosebleeds, depression and psychosis. Some even carry a risk of coma or death.
In March this year, Chris Dyer, a promising, 24-year-old university graduate from Peebles, in the Scottish Borders, died following an agonising five-year battle with addiction to one such drug, GBL.
“The disease of addiction means many things to me,” he wrote in his diary 16 months before his death. “I live a life of unhappiness, lies and deceit. I devastate my family, but besides being there for me, there is little they can do. It will ultimately lead to my death, unless I stop.”
But worryingly, Mr Dyer’s story is far from unique. This year GBL (Gamma-Butyrolactone) has also claimed the life of Stephanie Balcarras, 22, and Hester Stewart, 21. In April, Miss Stewart, an outstanding medical student at Sussex University, was found dead at a house in Brighton after taking the drug during a party. Last month, Miss Balcarras, from Hamilton, South Lanarkshire, was found dead at a friend’s house in Blackpool, having apparently taken the drug the previous night.
GBL is converted in the stomach into the notorious date-rape drug GHB, which was banned in 2003. Doctors first gave warning about GBL in 2005, when one said that it was “vastly more dangerous than Ecstasy”. This month politicians finally passed legislation that will make the drug illegal. The ban will come into force just before Christmas.
Other “legal highs” will also be banned, including synthetic cannabinoids, which are sprayed on herbal smoking products, and chemicals such as BZP (Benzylpiperazine), part of the piperazine family of stimulants that are an alternative to amphetamine.
The new law has angered experts who argue that the legislation does not go far enough because it does not ban other party drugs such as mephedrone. The drug has already been outlawed in some countries, including Sweden, Israel and the US, where it has been linked with a string of deaths.
The Home Office says the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs is investigating mephedrone as a “top priority”, and will report back early next year.
But for the moment, people such as Sunny who trade in mephedrone and other such drugs are beyond the law. It is little surprise, then, that all these drugs are widely available on the internet.
A quick Google search reveals numerous websites selling mephedrone for as little as £5 a gram. The illegal drug MDMA, which has similar effects and lasts roughly the same time, is about £35 a gram.
Other drugs for sale include methylone, which is also known as “explosion”, a psychoactive similar to MDMA or Ecstasy, and the designer drug MDPV, which has similar effects.
In most cases it is illegal to sell, supply or advertise legal highs under medicines legislation, but suppliers use descriptions such as “plant foods”, “research chemicals”, “fertiliser” and “cleaning fluid”, with labels that state “not for human consumption” to get around the law.
Yet their intended audience is clear. Many websites are illustrated with pictures of clubbers, and names such as UK Legals and Ravegardener do nothing to disguise their targeted market.
The Sunday Telegraph had no problem obtaining several grams of mephedrone from a number of these websites. The packages arrived by special delivery within 48 hours. One website, run by Sunny, even offered a special “pick-up and drop-off” service and provided a mobile phone number to call after 10pm and at weekends.
Our reporter, posing as a clubber, arranged to buy five grams of mephedrone and collect it in person at Osterley station in south-west London.
Once the deal had been done, our reporter announced that he was a journalist for The Sunday Telegraph and Sunny agreed to talk to the newspaper about his business. “We started off buying mephedrone in bulk from other websites,” he said. “Then we found a Chinese company that offered to supply us. We buy it in bulk from them at a cost of around £2,500 a kilogram and they ship it over – usually within three to five days.
“The reason it’s so popular is mostly because of the price. Cocaine has gone up and is expensive. Ecstasy is generally bad quality, but mephedrone is very pure and very cheap. One gram, which costs about £10, is probably enough for one person for a night out.”
Sunny launched the website months after he had been released from prison after serving three-and-a-half years of a seven-year sentence for dealing class-A drugs.
He agreed to talk to The Sunday Telegraph even though committing another offence will land him back in jail because, he said, what he is doing “is perfectly legal”.
“Everyone who runs a website like mine knows it’s illegal to sell these drugs for human consumption. That’s why we use descriptions like ‘not for human consumption’, ‘plant feeders’, or ‘research chemicals’.
“Does my admitting to you that I know that mostly these drugs aren’t being used as plant feeders mean I’m breaking the law? Well, that’s a grey area.”
Sunny said he had read about the death of Miss Price last week but that he was not concerned about “the safety side of things”.
“I’ve taken it three times myself and I know lots of people who have taken it on several occasions. I’ve never heard any horror stories. In my experience, the drug is safe.
“But there is a moral issue. I would never sell the drug to anyone who I thought was under 18. I believe in everything in moderation, and that applies to all drugs – cocaine, Ecstasy, cannabis, alcohol – not just mephedrone.”
That view fails to take into account the addictive nature of such drugs. The Royal College of Psychiatrists says that they are starting to see patients suffering from psychosis, which can include hallucinations and delusions, on mental health wards as a result of taking mephedrone.
But that will do little to deter the owners of “legal high” websites, some of which, according to Sunny, are earning in excess of £100,000 every week.
“It’s such a new phenomenon and lots of people are trying to take advantage of the huge amount of money that can be made while it’s still legal.
“We know that at some point the Home Office probably will make it illegal. And by then there may be another drug shipped over that is chemically similar and has similar effects, but is legal.
“What’s to stop us selling that instead?”
November 29, 2009